Sarah Littlejohn: Supporting the mental health of our students
You don’t need me to tell you that mental health is a significant issue – approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year .
But I did want to use today – World Mental Health Day (10 October) – to highlight the ways in which our University is tackling this growing issue.
A recent survey of 37,500 students from more than 140 universities across England, Scotland and Wales, revealed that one in five reported a current mental health diagnosis, with depression and anxiety disorders featuring highly. Half of the students who took part in the survey reported having thoughts of self-harm and 42.8% said they were often or always worried. And the stigma surrounding mental illness still persists with 75% saying they concealed their mental health symptoms from friends. . It’s worth noting that the students taking part in this survey self-reported, so there may be some limitations with the data, but the findings do point to the scale of the issue.
Understanding the causes of these levels of mental health difficulties amongst young people is not straightforward. Some believe that there are powerful societal issues at play – from the social consequences of a long period of austerity to the ‘always on’ pressure of social media.
In their time with us our students are focused on their academic curriculum. But we are increasingly aware of the implicit ‘psychological curriculum’ that they are also engaged in. During their time with us our students – whether undergraduate, postgraduate taught or postgraduate research – will move through developmental hurdles, build a huge range of personal and emotional skills and face challenges that require psychological flexibility and resilience. Many of our students who enter at 18 or 19 years old will grow up with us, despite technically being adults when they arrive.
Around 40,000 students call The University of Manchester home – so providing mental health support for such a large and diverse community will always be a challenge. How do we provide the kind of specialised and individual support at the kind of scale that is required?
Our University already has a range of support for students in place, but we’ve built on that to begin to address the mental health challenge through two new initiatives.
The first is a partnership between the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership, our University, Manchester Metropolitan University, the Royal Northern College of Music, the University of Bolton and the University of Salford – representing a combined student body of more than 100,000.
The new Greater Manchester Universities Student Mental Health Service (GMUSMHS) has now opened. It is staffed by NHS clinical psychologists, mental health nurses and a psychiatrist and aims to close the gap between university services and the NHS which students have often struggled to access. Students will be seen first in the University Counselling and Mental Health Service and then helped to access the new service if appropriate.
Our second initiative is called the Big White Wall. This is available to all students and staff at our University and is a 24/7 online platform that provides peer-to-peer support, moderated by trained counsellors, as well as a wealth of resources and online workshops and groups. It doesn’t replace face-to-face support, but it does supplement it.
The GMUSMSH is initially a two year pilot and the Big White Wall is a one year pilot which has been kindly funded by a generous donor. Both schemes will be evaluated to assess their impact.
The undoubted increase in demand for mental health support presents both a challenge and an opportunity. How can we continue to evolve the support we offer – your thoughts on this issue are very welcome.
Sarah Littlejohn, Head of Campus Life
You can find out more from Sarah and other University colleagues talking about mental health by listening to these podcasts.
 McManus, S., Meltzer, H., Brugha, T. S., Bebbington, P. E., & Jenkins, R. (2009). Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, 2007: results of a household survey. The NHS Information Centre for health and social care.
. The research was conducted by the Insight Network and you can read more at: The Guardian